From Connect [College of Education + Human Development],
University of Minnesota, Volume 7, No. 1, pp. 18-19. Winter 2013. See
A Long Winter's Nap
Less than 20 years ago, discoveries about teen sleep began
changing school start times in Minnesota. Now it's a national
By Gayla Marty
One morning in 1996, Kyla Wahlstrom [see
http://www.cehd.umn.edu/CAREI/people/KWahlstrom.html ] got a call from
a local superintendent. His school board had just decided to change
the high school start time from 7:15 to 8:30 the next fall, only
months away. Emerging research on profound differences in teen sleep
patterns was so strong that the board believed a later start time
could help their students. The superintendent called Wahlstrom because
she directs the U's Center for Applied Research and Educational
Improvement (CAREI), which examines new things happening in schools.
Wahlstrom admits she was skeptical. But Edina went through with the
plan and the results astounded everyone. A year later, all seven high
schools in Minneapolis followed suit. CAREI was asked to investigate
and report the findings. Now, 15 years later, as author of the School
Start Time Study, Wahlstrom is called upon by school districts across
the country that are considering the change.
Here are Wahlstrom's answers to some common questions.
How is teen sleep different than sleep for anybody else?
Sleepiness is caused by melatonin's release in the body, which is
regulated by the central nervous system. Medical research shows that
teenagers-different from young children and adults-have a distinct
sleeping and waking cycle. Almost all teens in the world, not just in
our country, tend to fall asleep biologically about 10:45 p.m., and
their bodies and brains want to stay in the sleep mode until about 8
in the morning. The shift in sleep timing happens at puberty, around
age 13, and lasts until about age 19. That's still more than nine
hours of sleep a teen needs every night.
Younger children need 10 to 12 hours of sleep, and they can easily
fall asleep at a regular bedtime that is very early. Of course the
body is also regulated by sunlight, so kids are naturally more ready
to stay up in the summer when the sun is still up, too.
Then as adults, we go back to our genetically determined sleep
patterns and need less sleep-usually around 8 hours. About 22
percent of us are larks and wake up naturally very early in the
morning, around 5 to 6 a.m., and about 27 percent of us are owls, who
naturally don't feel sleepy until 1 or 2 a.m. and don't function
well until around 10 a.m. The rest of us are somewhere in the
What difference does it make to change school start times?
In the initial findings in both Edina and Minneapolis the teachers
said, "This is a different bunch of kids now with the later start.
They are awake and ready for learning." And the principals said,
"We have a different school here!" There were fewer disruptions in
the lunchroom, and passing times in the hallways were more subdued.
School counselors said the students were self-referring less for peer
relationship problems. When we interviewed parents-and we
interviewed and surveyed hundreds of parents-they said their kids
were easier to live with. Of course, it makes sense-no matter how
young or old we are, we're less crabby when we get enough sleep!
In October 2013, the Twin Cities will host a major national conference
on teen sleep-the intersection between medicine, education, and
policy-cosponsored by CAREI and the U's Academic Health Center.
Child psychologists, pediatricians, school personnel, and policymakers
are just some of those expected to attend. Watch for conference
information on the CAREI website.
After five years, Minneapolis found a statistically significant
improvement in the graduation rate. Kids stopped missing the bus and
missing as much class time. In 2010, a study in Virginia showed a
connection between later start times and a drop in car accidents by
teens on their way to school in the morning. So there are tremendous
positive outcomes by pushing back start times for high schools by at
least an hour.
How many schools have changed?
We stopped counting when more than 250 schools across the country had
made the change. In Minnesota, it appears that many school districts
have shifted to at least 8 a.m., and more are considering an 8:30
start. It's happening everywhere-I've heard from every state in
the union. Just today I had a call from a national newspaper to check
some facts for an article they're running about the local issues
that districts have in making such a change.
Are there costs and problems?
It can be very difficult for schools historically starting at 7:15 or
7:20 to make that shift. But Minneapolis did it, with 52,000 enrolled
students at the time they made the move, at no cost. What we've seen
is that it requires two things-a lot of careful planning, and for
people to believe the facts. By now the medical link between teen
sleep and school performance is strong.
Making the change creates an imbalance in the community for about a
year. You know: When are buses on the road? When are babysitters
available? In school districts where they use the same set of buses
for all grade levels, like Minneapolis, it means the elementary
students are now waiting for the bus on those winter mornings in the
dark. It's a real concern. Some neighbors take turns waiting with
the kids in the morning. On the other hand, those little ones may not
be going home in the dark at the end of the day anymore.
What can parents do to help teens get enough sleep?
It's about routines-the human body really likes routines. The body
has to slow down to get ready to fall asleep. Even as adults we know
we can't come home from a party and jump in bed! So parents can
establish routines for their kids to slow down before bed. There's
also brand-new research about the effect of light that comes off all
of our devices-cell phones and computers and TV: it's very
disruptive to the brain because the brain thinks it's daylight.
It's a different wavelength than regular light bulbs. So a half hour
before bedtime, depending on your kids' ages, you can say shut
everything off except a lamp. They can have a quiet game or
story-parents can read to younger ones, or kids can read themselves
something calming in bed.
And we can tell them why! Sleep is important for learning.
How does sleep affect learning?
The function of sleep is to "prune" our memories of the stimuli
that have bombarded us all day and to consolidate what's important.
If you don't have that pruning and consolidation, you wake up all
scattered and disorganized. This is true for human learning at any
age-information is consolidated in your brain during sleep,
especially REM sleep. A good night's sleep is all about
SIDEBAR - Up Next: In October 2013, the Twin
Cities will host a major national conference on teen sleep-the
intersection between medicine, education, and policy-cosponsored by
CAREI and the U's Academic Health Center. Child psychologists,
pediatricians, school personnel, and policymakers are just some of
those expected to attend. Watch for conference information on the
Learn more about CAREI, the direct research link between CEHD
and Minnesota schools preK-16, and school start-time research.
[See http://www.cehd.umn.edu/carei/publications/#ssts ]
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Kyla Wahlstrom
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244